J.C. Powys: ESPRITS-FRERES
Lettres choisies et traduites par Christiane Poussier et Anne Bruneau
Ed. José Corti, 2001
Editions José Corti, which has already published several important works by John Cowper Powys these recent years, made us a royal present with Esprits-Frères: we have here a selection by Christiane Poussier and Anne Bruneau of 175 letters to different correspondents from 1910 to 1940, in an elegant volume of 416 pages, with a sober cover showing a 1929 photograph of John Cowper Powys, in profile, curved nose, high cheekbones, and eyes looking afar of the Native American staring at the horizon, the very year of Wolf Solent. The two translators have achieved a remarkable result, corresponding also exactly to what Phyllis Playter, Powys's companion, wished for, "a book not of mere documentary value but of literary delight". One finds, apart from a detailed presentation of each of the correspondents, apposite footnotes as well as insertions all along relative to some events in John Cowper's life. Deciding to stop at the date of 1940 is a judicious choice, it seems to me, because of the proximity of two terrible dates: December 1939, when Llewelyn dies in Davos, far from his beloved Wessex, and April 1941 when Frances and her daughter die in an air-raid in Plymouth. 1940 is also the year when Owen Glendower, that immense historical fresco, was published, marking a turning point in Powys's production. (I will only express one regret, that there is no table of contents listing dates and names and I will make one criticism, the Introduction, essential for the reader's understanding, is not signed...)
Powys, during all his life, has kept such an immense correspondence that it is impossible to know how many letters he wrote, "the number is infinite", as one specialist said. He would always answer letters scrupulously, even from people he did not know, and he did this almost to the end of his life, an occupation which took up an enormous part of his time, to the detriment of his work. Quite a number of these letters have been published in English, either by Village Press in the seventies, or by The Powys Review and, since 1983 by the London publisher Cecil Woolf. The French-speaking reader who has followed the many publications of his translated work during the past years is sure to be charmed, discovering Powys's epistolary style, of which a few examples had been given by F.X. Jaujard in his mythical Granit. Powys, great writer that he is, shows himself to be an epistoler of the first magnitude. He writes in a vivid style full of nuances, "carried away" as he says, "by the look of words and the bluff of words and the parade of words", for his pleasure as much as for the pleasure of his reader. As he remarks, "One can't cultivate a 'sincere' tone I can't anyway. I must ramble on in my fantastic charlatan manner or not at all." (to Llewelyn, 9 September 1914) His letters have a rare spontaneous quality. He knows how to be amusing without being caustic, his style is varied but devoid of mannerisms, he is as attentive to his moods as he is to his reader's. He writes in a nervous, disorderly manner, punctuated with words in italics or underlined once or twice, laid out with exclamation marks; the original letters show his pointed and nervous hand covering the page with an intricate muddle of dancing paragraphs, using all the space available and sometimes adorning it with caricatures of himself. See for instance the facsimile in this issue of a letter to Sven-Erik. Powys very naturally adapts himself to the personality of the person he converses with, and gives him his whole attention. When you are used to reading his letters, it is almost possible to "hear" the tone of his voice. We learn a lot too, for without conceit, without prudishness, he willingly confides to his correspondent, even if he does not know him well, facts about his private life, his health, the books he reads, his travels, as well as his reactions to the different events, painful or joyous, which have marked these important years. But he seldom evokes work in progress, or only slightly, en passant, with the notable exceptions of Wolf Solent and Autobiography, for which he explains in detail his intentions to Llewelyn. This correspondence is a mine of information about his life in the States, and the people, well-known or not, whom he met, Theodore Dreiser for instance, who became an intimate friend. Many of these letters are written during his trips through the country, in trains, in the waiting-rooms of stations, in hotels or on ships, during his many transatlantic crossings up to 1934, when he came back to Great Britain for good.
Among these Letters, the most numerous and in my opinion the most moving are those written to Llewelyn, who, although so different was without doubt nearest to John Cowper's heart and remained so to the end of his life. But we also find some of the letters John Cowper wrote to Frances Gregg, for a long time the "Cathy" of a John Cowper transformed into the Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights ("O you have got me, Cathy, body and soul" he writes to her then...) We also find some letters addressed to other members of the family: the Nietzschean Theodore, Philippa/Katie affectionately called 'Sea Eagle', Lucy the youngest sister, Bertie the architect, 'Brother Positive'... John Cowper also writes to other friends, who belong to the 'circle' of intimates, such as Louis Wilkinson 'the Archangel', who was a close friend of the three Powys brothers, or Gerard Casey, the disciple, who will scatter Powys's ashes at Chesil Beach in 1963, Huw Menaï the Rhondda poet, the Swedish Sven-Erik named Eric the Red, the writer James Hanley or Nicholas Ross who appears in Powys's life in 1939 and whom John Cowper fondly called 'Rhisiart', after one of Owen Glendower's heroes. There are quite a few who are not present here but how could it be otherwise? and one strongly recommends John Cowper PowysHenry Miller, Correspondance Privée (which was translated by N. Haddad and published in French, Ed. Criterion, in 1994). In English, we only have the one-sided Letters of Powys to Miller.
But it is really Phyllis Playter, Powys's American companion since 1921, so important in his life but important too in the elaboration of the great novels, who is the one great absentee, their eagerly awaited Correspondence still not being accessible. Meanwhile, may we hope that in the near future the 1929, 1930 and 1931 Diaries, which John Cowper started to write at the instigation of Phyllis and which have been published in English, will find a French publisher ready to give us another great pleasure?